US War Games In Doubt Amid Ukraine Turmoil

KIEV, Ukraine -- US reservists preparing for war games in Ukraine left the ex-Soviet state yesterday amid protests and political uncertainty, casting doubt on whether the exercises would take place.

Port of Sevastopol

Small but noisy groups of pro-Russian protesters have hounded the 200 US servicemen during their stay in the Crimea peninsula to prepare for the Sea Breeze 2006 exercise in July.

Television showed them leaving their base in a convoy of buses, with clutches of protesters shouting “Yankee go home!”

Parliament must approve the presence of foreign troops for the exercises to proceed as part of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko’s long-term plan to join Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) – a notion denounced by giant northern neighbour Russia.

But parliament is paralysed by slow-moving talks to form a coalition government since an inconclusive election in March.

“The US reservists were to come here for three weeks. This period has elapsed and they are returning home to their factories and hospitals,” Andriy Lysenko, defence ministry spokesman, told Reuters. “Unfortunately, the men were unable to complete the work that they were assigned.”

The failure to clinch a coalition agreement by the three parties that backed Yushchenko in the 2004 “Orange Revolution” that brought him to power has halted much political activity.

A proposed visit by US President George W Bush was put off and Ukrainian-British exercises in June have been postponed.

But Lysenko said that he hoped parliament, in recess to allow coalition talks to proceed, could resolve the issue to give the go-ahead for Sea Breeze.

“The exercises are not due to open until July 16 and there is still time,” he said. “The Defence Ministry hopes the issue can be raised and a law passed at parliament’s first sitting.”

Yushchenko is pledged to integrating Ukraine in the West and joining the European Union and Nato, the latter as soon as 2008.

His election has done little to resolve Ukraine’s traditional split into central and nationalist western regions who favour quick moves towards the West and its Russian-speaking east which wants to rebuild strong ties with Moscow.

But attitudes to Nato are less clear-cut – though Ukraine has held joint exercises under alliance auspices since 1997. Eastern Ukraine and Crimea oppose Nato, but western regions are no more than lukewarm on the issue.

Russian television has given blanket coverage to protests in Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based and most residents are ethnic Russians sympathetic to Moscow.

Protests were rarely more than a few hundred-strong, but the reservists were mostly confined to a holiday base and spent much of their time clearing beaches and upgrading a soccer field.

Besides local protests in Crimea, the planned exercises also triggered reaction from Moscow, which warned the US and Nato not too push too hard to bring Ukraine into the fold.

Ukrainian authorities say that Russians have taken part in the protests, in violation of Ukrainian law. A leading Ukrainian weekly has said that the demonstrations have been masterminded by the Russian special security services, the FSB, formerly KGB.

On Thursday, up to 2,000 anti-Nato demonstrators protested outside the lodgings in Feodosia of the US reservists.

While preparations for the Ukrainian-US manoeuvres were continuing, they would be held “only after adoption of a law” authorising these and other international military exercises planned to be held by the end of the year, Ukrainian Defence Minister Anatoly Gritsenko said this week.

On Wednesday, Russia issued a sharp warning to the US and ex-Soviet republics looking to join the Nato alliance, saying expansion of the bloc into lands the Kremlin considers its backyard would have a “colossal” and negative impact.

The lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, also overwhelmingly approved a “message” to the parliament of Ukraine expressing the “serious concern” of the Russian legislature at Kiev’s goal of joining Nato and saying this would violate treaty agreements between the two countries.

The contentious atmosphere in Ukraine has led to the postponement of another joint military exercise between Ukraine and Britain.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said on Thursday that “in the current situation” Kiev and London had decided “unfortunately” to postpone manoeuvres which were scheduled to start June 12. No new date has been set.

Earlier yesterday, Ukraine’s navy said that the planned military exercises may still take place.

“The holding of the exercises Sea Breeze 2006 will be decided by parliament”, which will consider the matter on June 14, Navy spokesman Volodymyr Bova said.

The Sea Breeze 2006 exercises were designed to strengthen ties between the pro-Western government in Kiev and the Nato.

However the Crimean peninsula, an autonomous region with Ukraine, has pro-Russia leanings as it has been the homebase of the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sebastopol since its creation by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev but remains populated largely by Russians.

Source: Reuters